Hockey wasn’t easy for Val James – from picking up the game as a young Long Island rink rat, to literally fighting his way through the minor leagues, to trading punches with some of the toughest enforcers in the National Hockey League.
But for James, the NHL’s first American-born black player, the roughest opponents often weren’t on the ice. They were in the stands.
“Think about going on the ice, 40 games a year on the road, and every three seconds of a 60-minute game, you’re getting a racial slur thrown at you over a 10-year period,” he told me recently.
James and co-author John Gallagher recount the hostility he endured and the good times the left wing experienced in hockey during the 1970s and 80s in his book, “Black Ice: The Val James Story,” which goes on sale Feb. 1.
He writes honestly about his career as an enforcer – not a goon – whose punching power instilled fear in opponents. He unflinchingly describes the racial abuse he endured during a professional career that spanned from 1978-79 with the Erie Blades of the old North Eastern Hockey League to 1987-88 with the Flint Spirits of the International Hockey League.
“You’d get depressed every now and then over it, thinking ‘why are these people doing this, they don’t know me.’ I’m just out to entertain them, to give them a night out with their families, their girlfriends, whoever,” he told me. “It can work on your psyche if you let it. I was lucky enough to have a lot of good people around me. My teammates supported me totally.”
Canadian-born Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player when he debuted with the Boston Bruins in 1958. James, 57, was the league’s first U.S.-born black player and probably the only NHLer born in Ocala, Florida.
His path to hockey started when his family moved to New York and his jack-of-all-trades father took a job at the Long Island Arena.
“He started out being a night watchman there, fixing things when they needed to be fixed,” James told me. “Then he ended up getting into the operations of it all.”
With dad working in the arena, young Val James got freebies for every major 1970s rock & roll act when they played the Island – the Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Burton Cummings.
He also regularly watched the EHL Long Island Ducks play and practice at the arena, fascinated by the speed and aggressiveness of the game. When James got his first pair of ice skates at 13, and with his dad owning a key to the stadium, the Long Island Arena became his practice facility.
“I’d grown up watching the Canadian men play hockey for the Long Island Ducks skate on this same ice,” James and Gallagher wrote. “I imagined myself as one of them.”
James developed into a good enough hockey player to be a 16th-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 1977, though he never played for the team. He cracked the Buffalo Sabres’ roster in 1981-82 after signing as an unrestricted free agent.
“The top guy was Larry Playfair. He was a heavyweight, I was a heavyweight. So that spot was already filled,” James said. “The second line was Lindy Ruff. They all had multi-year contracts at the time because they never expected a guy like me to come along.”
After five seasons in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans
and the St. Catharines Saints, James returned to the NHL for four games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1986-87.
His NHL career stat line: No goals, no assists and 30 penalty minutes. But it’s the minor leagues where James had his greatest impact. He played in 630 games, tallied 45 goals, 77 assists and accumulated more than 1,175 penalty minutes – most of them with the AHL Americans.
A lot of those minutes were fives for fighting.
“It was something I was really good at,” James said.
Mike Stothers, head coach of the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, can attest to that. He and James fought 13 times during a seven-game playoff series when Stothers was a defenseman for the Hershey Bears and James a winger for the St. Catharines.
“He was very good, probably one of the toughest at the time in the American Hockey League. He might have been the toughest ever in the American Hockey League,” Stothers told me. “He was a big man, very strong.”
Stothers paid James the highest compliment one enforcer can give another: “He was an honest fighter.”
“There was never any extra stuff: no cheap shots or stick work involved,” he added. “He never took liberties on skilled players.”
But that never stopped so-called “fans” from taking liberties on James. Objects and racist taunts were routinely thrown his way.
“At that point in time when I was coming up, it was always bananas, pictures of people from Africa with the bone in their nose, spear in their hands, the shields,” James told me. “People would make 8-foot, 9-foot signs like that and display them. At that time, there was no governing of behavior, players or fans, by the leagues.”
It was so bad that when CBS followed James in 1981 for a segment for “CBS News Sunday Morning,” the public address announcer at the Salem-Roanoke County Civic Center felt compelled to remind game attendees that use of offensive language was prohibited – something he’d never done before.
“Either way, neither the announcement nor the presence of the news cameras could stop the slurs and, as usual, not a single soul got tossed out for playing the racist fool,” James and co-author Gallagher wrote.
But there were times when people took stands against the abuse aimed at James. When two Richmond Rifles fans cast a fishing line with a toy monkey tied to it into the penalty box where James was sitting, referee Patrick Meehan stopped the EHL game and demanded the ejection of the offending fans.
“He did something that could have possibly at that point got him killed or lynched after the game,” James said. “But, nonetheless, he stood up for something, and that means a lot to me.”
Meehan, now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, said he wasn’t trying to make a statement. He just trying to stop something that was “fundamentally wrong.”
“That’s not something that’s ‘fans just being fans.’ That can’t be tolerated,” Meehan
told me recently. “I did blow the whistle and skated over to the penalty box and I told (Richmond Rifles officials) that if those fans weren’t ejected from the game, I wouldn’t continue officiating that game and that game would be done.”
“I remember the owner came down and he was like ‘What are you doing?'” Meehan added. “I looked at him and said ‘That’s wrong.’ He said ‘You can’t do it.’ I said ‘Whether I can or can’t, I am because I will not skate in a game that condones that activity, so you make a choice.'”
The fans were ejected and the game went on.
On most nights, James took racial justice in his own hands – taking out his anger at the crowd on an opposing player.
“Since I couldn’t act on my fantasy of shoving a hockey puck down the throat of every big-mouthed racist, one acceptable way for me to respond to these attacks was to turn up my physical play,” James and Gallagher wrote. “If I could knock one of their hometown players into next week, then some of my anger might fade.”
James said he’s pleased to see the growth of players of color in hockey, from youth leagues to the pros.
He thought the sport had put its racial woes behind it until some Boston Bruins “fans” unleashed online racist tirades against Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward for scoring a game-winning overtime goal that eliminated the Bruins from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012 and Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban for scoring a double-overtime game-winning goal against Boston in last season’s playoffs.
“It tells me that the state of hockey has advanced but hasn’t advanced, all in the same breath,” he said. “Those Boston incidents, they might be the same relatives of the people that tried to get me back in the 80s, right?”
Since hanging up his skates, James has traded hard ice for soft water. He works as a water park mechanic in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a short drive from Rochester and Buffalo – homes of his hockey glory days.
Rochester fans remember James not only for his fisticuffs but also for scoring the game-winning goal for the Americans in the deciding game of the 1983 Calder Cup championship against the Maine Mariners.
The Americans are holding a “Val James Legends Night” on Feb. 13 – the day before his birthday – at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena. In Buffalo, he’s been invited to speak to the kids of Hasek’s Heroes, an inner-city hockey program founded by former Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek.
James hopes the attention from the book will lead to opportunities to get back into organized hockey, perhaps in the coaching ranks.
“I think I can help the sport out more than I have,” he said.